Ulster have an immediate opportunity to bounce back from last weekend’s reversal to the Ospreys when they host bottom side Zebre at Ravenhill tonight.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, February 15
ULSTER (1st) v ZEBRE (12th), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland/SportItalia 2)
Team News: Ulster welcome back Ireland forwards Declan Fitzpatrick, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry for Friday’s RaboDirect PRO12 clash with Zebre at Ravenhill.
Back-line players Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave and Chris Cochrane are the other players coming into the team, while there are a further two positional switches.
Dublin-born winger Neil Walsh, who joined Ulster last month after a three year spell playing for Melbourne Rugby Club, could make his debut after being named among the replacements.
If he makes an appearance on Friday night Walsh will be the 46th player to represent the province this season – 41 of whom are Irish qualified.
Fitzpatrick’s inclusion means Tom Court will revert back to loosehead prop, with Rob Herring again starting at hooker.
Team captain Johann Muller and Lewis Stevenson continue their second row partnership, while flankers Henderson and Henry are joined by Robbie Diack in the back row.
Jackson has replaced Stuart Olding at out-half and will line up outside Ruan Pienaar. Cave’s return to the number 13 jersey sees Luke Marshall move inside, with Cochrane joining Andrew Trimble and Ricky Andrew in the back-three.
Joining Walsh as the back-line options on the bench are young Belfast Harlequins half-backs Michael Heaney and Olding.
Front row cover is provided by Niall Annett, Callum Black and John Afoa, who returns to the squad after a three-week absence. Neil McComb and Mike McComish are also included in the matchday 23.
There are now less than 1,000 tickets available for Friday’s game as Ulster look to play in front of a sold-out crowd for the ninth consecutive match. Please call 02890493222 (option 2) for more information or book online at www.ulsterrugby.com.
Meanwhile, Zebre boss Christian Gajan welcomes back three players from international duty for the club’s first ever visit to Belfast.
Full-back Paolo Buso and centre Gonzalo Garcia return from Italy’s RBS 6 Nations squad while reserve back and former Italian Academy member David Odiete is part of the national Under-20 set-up.
Buso and Garcia will add experience to a Zebre back-line which is missing the injured Roberto Quartaroli and Tito Tebaldi, who was a try scorer in last Sunday’s clash with Glasgow Warriors.
Fit-again second row Marco Bortolami will captain Zebre for the first time. He made his seasonal bow for the club last weekend having battled back from the shoulder injury he sustained during Italy’s summer tour to Argentina last June.
Bortolami and company will be especially determined to put one over on Ulster and achieve their first league win.
They came close when the sides met in November when Zebre scored four tries in a 27-25 loss – including a brace from their South African back rower Andries van Schalkwyk.
ULSTER: Ricky Andrew, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Chris Cochrane; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rob Herring, Declan Fitzpatrick, Johann Muller (capt), Lewis Stevenson, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black, John Afoa, Neil McComb, Mike McComish, Michael Heaney, Stuart Olding, Neil Walsh.
ZEBRE: Paolo Buso; Leonardo Sarto, Alberto Benettin, Gonzalo Garcia, Sinoti Sinoti; Daniel Halangahu, Alberto Chillon; Andrea de Marchi, Andrea Manici, Luca Redolfini, Michael van Vuren, Marco Bortolami (capt), Filippo Cristiano, Mauro Bergamasco, Josh Sole.
Replacements: Carlo Festuccia, Carlo Fazzari, Matias Aguero, Andries van Schalkwyk, Nicola Belardo, Alberto Chiesa, Matteo Pratichetti, David Odiete.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Paul Haycock, Barry O’Keefe (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/250; Draw: 66/1; Zebre to win: 18/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Lewis Stevenson (Ulster) – “We set very high standards for ourselves and we definitely slipped below those (against the Ospreys). I think it’s a wake-up call and I’m not taking anything away from the Ospreys here,” he told the Newsletter.
“But if we want to compete and be one of the leading sides in the PRO12 and the Heineken Cup then we’re going to have to do better than that, we have to sharpen up and be a lot more accurate.
“There was a general snowball of things that went wrong and once one thing doesn’t work then something else goes wrong somewhere else.
“The Ospreys put us under pressure and did well and they took their opportunity when it came and we didn’t take ours when they came which is again not like us. We need to refocus and get our standards back to where they need to be.
“I think we were off in our physicality and that’s something I think I could have addressed more. If you look at how the Ospreys defended I think they did so with a great deal of physicality but I don’t think we did.
“They were getting over the gain line consistently and that’s something we have to eliminate this weekend as well. Zebre are a good side despite the fact that they haven’t won a game, some of their results have been close.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Ruan Pienaar 72; Tries: Nick Williams 6; Zebre – Points: Daniel Halangahu 50; Tries: Tito Tebaldi, Andries van Schalkwyk 3 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, September 8, 2012 – Zebre 25 Ulster 27, Stadio XXV Aprile
– The Ospreys handed Ulster only their second RaboDirect PRO12 defeat of the season last Friday evening at Ravenhill
– The Ulstermen’s only previous defeat to Italian opponents in a competitive match was 23-12 at home to Benetton Treviso in October 2011
– Zebre still await their first victory in the RaboDirect PRO12 although they have led six of their 14 games at some stage this season
– Ulster won 27-25 in Parma when the two sides clashed in round 4, their second closest defeat so far